“Love is respect for otherness”
– George Grant, Canadian philosopher.
A version of this story, written by Nick Loenen about his brother, Jack, was originally published in Christian Courier on January 27, 2014. It is republished here with permission.
Photo: Jack Loenen, centre, with his brothers Ed, left, and Nick, right.
“That boy should have been a girl!” Sixty-five years later, I still hear Mother’s voice. No concern, no condemnation, just curiosity. That little boy was my brother, Jack.
Jack’s “otherness” showed early. As a toddler he begged for skirts, dresses and long hair with ribbons. He stayed indoors, cleaning house, helping in the kitchen. He was on a collision course with his own nature and the community that nurtured him. His sex was male, but so much of his behaviour seemed female. To his parents Jack was a curious oddity. Difficult to imagine now, but it took years before Jack’s innocent pleadings were fully understood. Among Christians in post-war Holland, sexual orientation was not discussed.
In Vancouver, where Jack came of age, our lives were enclosed within the Dutch, Reformed immigrant community. He involved himself in choir, gospel music and Young People’s. Sunday evenings were spent with church friends around the organ, singing hymns with gusto and delight. He starred in skits, Christmas plays and musicals. His talent for acting, dance, singing and his attraction to the stage all burst on the scene during his adolescence. And he was popular. Especially with girls! They adored this boy, so much like them. My wife Jayne still says, wistfully, “Jack was so much fun!”
When awakened to his true identity, the community that adored him had no room for him. Jack was sent for counselling. When that proved no cure, the minister said there was nothing to be done except pray and try to be normal. At 18 Jack left, found another community, one that spoke his language. He never returned to church.
Who can ever know the anguish born from rejection and abandonment by one’s own?
For Mother, this was all new and little understood. Recently widowed, she now faced this challenge alone – a challenge to her values, questions about proper and improper conduct, questions about faith. What did God want from her son and from her? Jack’s gender came pre-packaged as much as his blond hair and blue eyes. That she knew with certainty. This was nature, not nurture. But most of her church community thought differently. They saw abhorrent deviant behaviour, a perversion. Should she, like her church, condemn her son, call him to repentance, show him the door or should she embrace him, walk beside him, try to understand his otherness? What did God expect from her? She felt deeply alone and frequently conflicted.
Then, more clouds gathered for Mother. Her only daughter, my sister Gerrie, who lived in Holland, had completed her specialized studies and had accepted a position as inner-city evangelist. How wonderful! But Gerrie had had to confront her own sexual orientation – she was lesbian. Hesitant at first, but then, out of a sense of solidarity with her brother Jack, she disclosed her situation to Mother. Gerrie had been privileged to receive support and understanding from pioneering clergymen who 50 years ago challenged the Dutch churches to walk alongside gay brothers and sisters. Together with Christian psychologists, those early leaders made a simple observation: the love between two persons of the same sex is essentially no different in nature than the love between heterosexuals. That insight is crucial.
Gerrie was nurtured spiritually in the Amsterdam-based Studentenekklesia. Started by the late Catholic Pastor Van Kilsdonk, this worship community for students thrived under the leadership of Huub Oosterhuis and is still home to many gays, both Protestant and Catholic. Gerrie has lived in a faithful, monogamous relationship with her partner for more years than many heterosexuals remain married. Time has given her perspective, making her comfortable in her own skin. She speaks about the past without bitterness.
Lacking the support Gerrie had enjoyed, Jack’s spiritual journey was more unsettled. For too many years our contact was fleeting and superficial. His life was marked by disappointments contributing to alcoholism. He experienced discrimination in matters of promotion during the many years he held a position at a city hospital. More positively, he funneled his talent for singing and acting into amateur kids’ theatre, bringing joy to the children he loved, but was denied himself.
For Mother, none of this was ever easy. She prayed much. She was not always sure what to make of it. But she stopped arguing with her church and quietly placed photos of Gerrie and Jack with their respective partners among the photos of her married children proudly displayed in her home.
In the last years of his life, Jack battled cancer, bringing us closer. As siblings, in turn, we moved in for several weeks each, nursing him. We had good discussions. On a beautiful, crisp winter day with creation tingling in anticipation, Jack and I assured each other that it takes more faith to believe that existence dropped out of the blue, without purpose, than to believe in a Creator God who has an end in mind that will blow our socks off. And then this: “As you know, I have not been in church much, but there has not been a day in my life without prayer.”
On Easter 2003, a service of baptism brought Jack to church. Our daughter and son-in-law thoughtfully named their baby boy after him. In the middle of treatments, bald as an egg, wearied beyond words, he travelled to Kelowna. To receive a namesake was a homecoming and acceptance from those he cared for most – his family. We sang old hymns around the piano; weak as he was, no one experienced joy on that Easter more deeply than Jack. Did Mother watch from “behind the veil” and see that her ardent prayers for “the boy who should have been a girl” were not fruitless?
Seven months later Jack succumbed to cancer. Four hundred people, including his siblings, crowded into a community hall to pay tribute. We were astounded at the impact his life had on others. Seven eulogists spoke movingly of his gift in caring for others. In life, Jack had invested, not in land, houses, cars and toys, but in relationships. Who would deny that his life had purpose?
On many issues the church has changed its mind. In the past 50 years alone – women voting in church; membership in secular unions; birth control; marriage after divorce; children at the Lord’s Supper; Sunday observance; women in office. In those instances the church has reinterpreted its understanding of the Bible. Why not homosexuality?
The purpose of life is the perfection of the soul. All great world religions agree on this: the soul is perfected through suffering. Our homosexual brothers and lesbian sisters suffer more than most “normal” people. Is the brokenness of the creation more intimately known to them? Do their souls shine a little brighter because they suffer more?
On the day Jack died, was there joy in heaven, did the angels sing at the homecoming of a child of the covenant? Did his baptism not signify the washing away of his sins and the renewal of his life? Does Jack, even now, sing with angels and archangels and all the hosts of heaven, the hymns he loved as a child?
Jesus tells of two sons. The younger is bad, very bad! He is the Lost Son. Against our expectations, the Lost Son, the bad one, ends up as guest of honour at a feast, no expenses spared. Nothing is too good for this boy. Jesus’ story illustrates the Father’s infinite compassion. To us, church people, judgment comes easier than compassion. Will we assume the difficult task of understanding with compassion those who are other, or will we continue in judgment?